Libraries faced an unprecedented demand for their services during lockdown. Libraries Connected estimate that libraries made 5 million additional digital loans and loaned 3.5 million more e-books than usual in this period.
Alongside this, libraries provided a lifeline to isolated and elderly people by undertaking wellbeing calls.
To highlight the activities taking place in libraries during lockdown Libraries Connected launched ‘LibrariesFromHome’. From lockdown Lego, to rhyme time and virtual festivals these activities helped in reducing social isolation, supported parents in educating at home and encouraged children to engage with books and reading.
During lockdown libraries across the country were forced to close their doors. They had to repurpose the vital community service they offer by creating ways in which people could access services virtually. Libraries Connected has a strategic role to play in supporting libraries and librarians. It recognised the following key challenges:
- Coordinating information about library activity happening across the country to provide the public with an easy way of navigating the offers.
- Ensuring libraries were highlighted as a source of information for communities.
- Supporting library services in collective actions, for example seeking blanket publisher permissions for story reading.
- Providing training and support for library staff on digital engagement.
LibrariesFromHome featured activities taking place across the country on its web pages. These included:
- Rhyme time sessions in Bournemouth, London, Devon, Dorset and Essex. These involve a mix of songs, rhymes, rhythm and movement, while providing the opportunity to share games, books with pre-school children.
- Storytimes, live streamed reading of children’s books in Blackpool, Bolton, Bracknell Forest, Central Bedfordshire and East Riding.
- Lego clubs in Lancashire, Havering, South Gloucestershire, Guernsey and York. These were weekly themed challenges which encourage children to create a Lego structure and share it on social media
- Code Clubs in Carlisle, Redbridge, Hampshire, The Wirral and Lambeth. Code Clubs help children learn to make games, animations and websites.
- Reading and book groups in Barnsley, West Sussex, London Libraries, North Lincolnshire, Neath Port Talbot, Blackpool, Suffolk and Bournemouth.
- E-festivals in Bradford, Manchester and Norfolk.
Libraries Connected also worked with teams of library staff who had digital engagement expertise to write a series of ‘how-to’ guides for other library staff to learn from and use; for example how to run Facebook Live, and how to create podcasts.
Examples of other ways in which libraries continued to support communities and local businesses included:
- Providing people with the opportunity to undertake family history research at home. Ancestry and Findmypast were made access available to library users from home, whereas normally users can only use these if they are in library buildings.
- Norfolk’s libraries helped the county’s small businesses through its Business and IP Centre (BIPC) by providing video content. It ran 67 online events including 1-to-1 advisory clinics and free webinar tutorials.
- Nottingham Libraries brought its StoryParks project to audiences in their homes via its new ‘Digital Den’. The Digital Den includes online story books, craft and nature activities for children. StoryParks was launched in 2019 by the library service in partnership with Nottingham Building Society, Nottingham Parks, local artists and performers. It brings libraries to parks offering literacy, numeracy, and wellbeing sessions.
The link to LibrariesFromHome was also included by the Department for Education in its web resources for the Hungry Little Minds campaign (focused on developing speech and language in pre-schoolers) and its guidance to assist those providing home schooling for primary-school age children.
Libraries Connected reported that in some services:
- There was a 600 percent increase in digital membership as well as fourfold increase in the number of ebooks borrowed. Estimates suggest that libraries made 5 million additional digital loans and loaned 3.5 million more ebooks than usual.
- Loans of online e-books, e-magazines and audiobooks went up an average of 63 percent in March compared with the previous year
120,000 people joined libraries in the three weeks after lockdown began, a significant increase on previous years.
The estimated cost of providing this digital offer is over £2 million which has been taken from library budgets across England.
Individually libraries reported significant increases in demand for their services. This included:
- Kingston Library Service, which reached on average 10,000 people for each of its online Rhyme Time sessions.
- Norfolk Libraries’ filmed activities were viewed over 172,000 times. That includes over 93,000 views of Bounce and Rhyme session videos.
Cabinet Member for Communities and Partnerships at Norfolk County Council, Cllr Margaret Dewsbury said: “These statistics speak for themselves - books and reading have obviously been incredibly important to people during lockdown and we’ve even seen hundreds more people join us online.
“We’ve also found new and creative ways of connecting people with our service and keeping them in touch with each other.
“I’m very proud of the way Norfolk Libraries have supported their communities during this difficult period - and the way our teams have worked so hard to ensure our libraries are as accessible online as they would be in person.”
Alongside digital activity, libraries provided a wide range of offline support for vulnerable individuals in their community, illustrated by one example from Ipswich Library.
‘Doris Bugg, 102, takes great pleasure in audiobooks borrowed from Ipswich Library but needed what libraries also offer - a connection to others, a conversation. It was care and concern for people like Mrs Bugg that led librarians to call her for a regular chat.
When Mrs Bugg reminisced over the phone about a novel her father read to her, staff from Suffolk Library Service bought a copy and recorded themselves reading it, especially for her. ’
Libraries provide spaces for social connection, physical learning and cultural experiences. The digital offer which accelerated during lockdown has allowed libraries to deepen existing connections and reach new audiences. The pandemic has also highlighted the vital service libraries offer to communities, going beyond digital to provide people a human connection in times of increased isolation.
Libraries and their staff have built their digital skills and alongside their existing expertise this will hopefully make for a more integrated future, where the digital and physical offer for communities is combined.
The pandemic highlighted a need for investment in better IT equipment for libraries and skills training for some staff to ensure they can continue to offer a quality digital experience. The cost of sustaining this dual offer is significant Ebooks are licensed rather than purchased and so represent an ongoing cost if catalogues are to be maintained alongside physical copies.
Lockdown has proved that libraries can extend their reach beyond borders and provide access to culture, learning and a means of connecting for people who may not be able to leave their homes.
 BBC News: How libraries provided a lifeline in lockdown, 10 July 2020